TENNESSEE VALLEY (WHNT) – It’s modern-day slavery unfolding where you least expect it. You may think of places like Asia or Eastern Europe when you hear the term "human trafficking," but a WHNT News 19 Taking Action investigation reveals it could be happening in a neighborhood near you. Maybe even your own.
“Is this happening in Huntsville? Yes. Every day in Huntsville it’s happening,” said Tajuan McCarty.
McCarty is a trafficking survivor who now runs a secret shelter for fellow victims in Birmingham. WHNT News 19 talked with her about how she made it through to safety and what her perspective is, now that she is on the outside.
“It’s happening in your hotels, motels, happening everywhere. It’s happening in your malls, your clubs. Your schools are target areas,” McCarty said. "I am a victim and survivor of human trafficking myself. I am not from Alabama. I was trafficked here so much it became home."
According to the U.S. State Department, it's ten times more likely for Americans to be trafficked inside their own homeland compared to a foreigner. McCarty's story is like so many others who have fallen prey. A young and vulnerable teen lured by an older boyfriend who lavished her with gifts and money, items that were used to spring a trap that quickly turned violent.
“She may have had sex with him, he may have videoed her, and at that point there is no more Mr. Nice Guy anymore,” McCarty said. “My throat has been cut, guns placed to my head and the trigger pulled, guns placed in my vagina and the trigger pulled. That is the coercion and manipulation we’re dealing with.”
We also spoke with federal law enforcement officials who investigate cases in the Huntsville area.
“We've had active cases here and still have active cases here in the Huntsville area,” said James Russell, Chief Supervisor of the FBI’s Huntsville office. "It's not a stranger danger or a kidnapping per-se. It's more of a coercion of a vulnerable individual by these menacing predators."
The FBI says Huntsville sits right in the middle of a human trafficking triangle that connects Birmingham, Nashville and Atlanta. Recent FBI cases include a sting at a Madison motel last year when five people from Memphis were arrested for trafficking a 15-year-old girl for sex. Another active investigation involves a foreign national who was working at Redstone Arsenal while holding a maid prisoner at his home. Russell said those and other cases can fly under the radar for months, with potential eyewitnesses often oblivious to what's happening right under their nose.
"Our youth, and they're mostly female but not exclusively so, are being victimized by the commercial sex trade."
"76 percent of these [victims] are Caucasian," said McCarty. "This is not a poverty issue. These are not girls from your poverty-stricken areas. Huntsville is also one of the primary targets for online child pornography. And the reason why is there's so much technology in Huntsville."
Victim advocates and law enforcement say the connection between traffickers and the pornography industry is unmistakable, a bond cemented by demand and money.
"One of the things we [FBI] do especially well is follow the money," said Russell. "Child pornography and human trafficking are examples of our ability to target the money flows."
"You don't know what's been done to her behind that camera," said McCarty. "The mouse is used as a weapon also. Every time you click on it, she is being hurt and destroyed. If we don't stop glorifying and sexualizing our girls, this is going to continue to happen."
The Huntsville-Madison County Human Trafficking Task Force was formed to raise public awareness, educate the community, and advocate to affect change in local, regional and state policies related to human trafficking. The Human Trafficking Task Force meets on the first Tuesday of each month at 2:00 p.m. at the National Children’s Advocacy Center. If you are interested in participating on the Task Force, contact info@STNOW.org.
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